A new project that aims to map trouble spots by noticing passenger anger on social media is among several innovations at a government-funded research centre for transport.
The Observer, Saturday 7 June 2014 18.06 BST
A robot transport pod in Abu Dhabi. Similar vehicles are coming to Milton Keynes next year. Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Images
Fuming in a traffic jam? Stuck on a stationary train outside the station? Standing waiting for the bus that was due to arrive 30 minutes ago? Soon you could get the chance to share your frustration – with the help of a revolutionary “sentiment mapping” project due to receive a major boost this week.
The system for tracking the emotions of drivers and passengers is one of the schemes that could reinvent our transport systems, thanks to an innovation centre being launched in Milton Keynes on Thursday.
The plan is to furnish transport providers with ways to identify, respond to and even anticipate the needs of customers in a variety of situations, including good service, breakdowns and delays.
“The whole transport sector is increasingly good at using every kind of technology, from posters to digital media to social media, to send information to passengers, but [is] not necessarily very good at finding out what the passenger experience is like,” says Dr Stephen Boyd Davis of the Royal College of Arts, who is working on the project. “The main aim of the sentiment mapping project is to find out what passengers are thinking and feeling – and to locate that in both time and place so that the information is actually useful and usable.”
While social media offers a goldmine of such data – from grumpy tweets to revealing Instagram photographs – a London-based company called Commonplace, along with the RCA, is looking at combining that information with purpose-built apps that could enable passengers to give additional feedback to a transport provider.
“Sentiment mapping gives you the opportunity to put passengers, users, right at the centre of their operational decision-making,” explains Mike Saunders, co-founder of Commonplace.
The project is one of more than 30 innovative schemes that will be developed at the new centre in Milton Keynes. Covering more than 3,300 square metres and dubbed the Imovation Centre – a rather cumbersome portmanteau of “Intelligent Mobility” and “Innovation” – the swish new facility is part of the government’s transport systems “catapult centre” and aims to bring together collaborators ranging from academics to technologists and entrepreneurs in an effort to provide new solutions to the conundrum of getting around.
“We live in a world where we are all making journeys all the time,” says spokesman David Reid. “There’s lots of different transport modes and methods, but what we are here to do is to try to make all those different methods of transport more connected.”
The centre is part of a drive to boost Britain’s status in the field of “intelligent mobility” – identifying and using current and emerging technologies to enhance transport, be it the logistics of moving freight or streamlining air traffic, making it more efficient, greener and potentially cheaper.
While £50m of government funding has been injected, to last until 2018, another £100m is expected to be brought in from collaborative grants and business contracts over coming years. The plan is for the centre to kickstart projects and set up partnerships, as well as provide meeting spaces, laboratories and state-of-the-art testing facilities. “What we are trying to do is bring a little bit of Silicon Valley to Milton Keynes,” says Reid.
Other projects have niche remits, including a venture focused on tackling the many challenges involved in ferrying stem cells to laboratories and hospitals where they are desperately needed. “Intelligent mobility is vital to being able to work out how you get those stem cells from A to B really quickly, efficiently and smartly,” says Reid.
Traffic lights will also be investigated for an upgrade, with a project looking at the potential for integrating GPS technology, smartphones and in-car computer systems to improve traffic flow and reduce costs.
It is not just logistics and services that are receiving a boost from work at the centre – new forms of low-carbon transport are also in the offing. The first “Lutz pathfinder pods” – two-person autonomous vehicles – are expected to be produced before Christmas and will be seen gracing specially designed paths across Milton Keynes as part of trials towards the end of next year.
Featuring technology installed by Oxford University’s mobile robotics group, the electric pods will eventually be driverless, pottering along at 7mph. However, until testing is complete, there will be a human rather than a computer at the helm.
Miles Garner of RDM, the Coventry-based company that has won the contract to build the pods, believes it is an exciting development in the future of transport. “The whole of the country is looking at this particular pilot with interest,” he says.
Starting tomorrow, you will be able catch a glimpse of the challenges, and emerging solutions, for transport systems at the Imagine Festival, hosted at the Imovation Centre. Over the course of 10 days, speakers ranging from computer scientist Dame Wendy Hall to Will Whitehorn, a former president of Virgin Galactic and current chairman of the catapult centre, will be sharing their visions for the future.
Could jetpacks finally be on the horizon? “I wouldn’t rule anything out,” says Reid. “It’s about time we had some, I think.”